Statement by President Philip E. Austin
On anti-gay incidents at UConn
October 27, 1999

Universities like ours serve many functions simultaneously. On any given day we are a center of research in the social and natural sciences, a platform for the creative arts, a nurturer of 18-year old students and 60-year old faculty alike, an arena for athletic competition, and a provider of service to the statewide community. But of all our multiple purposes, the most fundamental is this: The University of Connecticut, like all great universities throughout history, must exist as a forum for the civil and safe exchange of ideas. This is what "academic freedom" is about and this is what makes universities such valuable places for our society.

This is, in any event, the ideal. The tragic reality is that all institutions, UConn among them, fall short of that ideal more often than we would like to admit. This was the case in recent weeks, when we witnessed some abhorrent graffiti whose obvious intent was to make people in one segment of our community — gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals —either hide or go away. It was similarly the case in past years, when incidents of verbal intimidation or outright violence have been directed at groups or individuals.

It is cold comfort to note that almost every university in America has witnessed its own crimes of hate and vandalism. Colleges and universities draw their constituents from a wider population, some of whose membersa minority, but not an insignificant onebring with them the capacity to degrade others who look or act different from themselves. I wish I could say that I thought the situation in society as a whole was improving. I wonder if it might not be getting worse or, more likely, if somehow the general culture is giving young people license to act on their ugliest impulses.

At least in the short run, the University's ability to impact mass culture is limited at best. But our responsibility to make this campus a haven from hate is both strong and clear. The recent stream of anti-gay hate messages provided a strong reminder, if indeed any was needed.

Let me state the obvious. Scrawling vicious, anonymous attacks on sidewalks, on the residence hall doors of gay or lesbian students, or on buildings that are devoted to serving those students is not an exercise of free speech. It is not part of a debate, promotion of a controversial idea, or an attempt to refute conventional wisdom. As a University president I am obligated to protect those things even when I find the ideas behind them personally abhorrent. No, the graffiti that appeared here recently was vandalism pure and simple. It was cowardly, because it was anonymous. It was not an invitation to dialogue and it did not contain even the germ of an idea. It was about as intellectual an act as smashing someone's windshield, and very possibly more dangerous.

Thus far this year the UConn police have investigated several graffiti incidents at UConn directed at racial, religious, ethnic or sexual orientation minorities. In fact, this kind of activity appears to be on the rise this year. We are beyond the point of debating whether we have a problem; clearly, we do. The question is what actions we will take to resolve it.

There are four essential steps.

  • First, take immediate, appropriate steps to investigate, apprehend, and prosecute perpetrators of these acts of hate. Vandalism is a violation of University policy and state law and will be dealt with as such.

  • Second, make clear that a crime of hate directed against any one group on our campus is a crime against every member of the UConn community. The University is a ively, exciting center of ideas only if each and every one of us has the right to live without fear.

  • Third, encourage respect for diversity in the classroom, in the residence halls, on the mall; make it part of the learning experience. For some new students this may be a new concept. But the more it becomes part of the climate, the more preposterous acts against minority groups come to seem. We have addressed this issue in part through ourstrong support for UConn's cultural centers and we took a major step forward this year with the appointment of a Vice Provost for Multicultural Affairs. These things help lay the groundwork for continued progress.

  • Fourth, foster an environment in which people get to know one another. Surveys have shown that people who know lesbians or gay men personally are vastly more likely to tolerate sexual difference than those who do not. The same is doubtless true of other groups. One of the great benefits of a large university is that it provides an opportunity in which people can work and live with people unlike themselves. I think we need to do more at UConn to capitalize on that potential.

Will these steps solve the problem of hate in American society? Of course not. But they will enable us, here at this campus, to create the kind of community that should characterize a great university. This is a responsibility for administration, to be sure, but also for faculty, students, and staff. We have taken some strong positive steps, notably through the work of the Chancellor's Special Task Force on Community and Civility. We clearly have a long distance to travel. If we are to maintain our rightful place as a center of ideas and as a community of civilized men and women, we must take every possible step to uphold the principles of understanding and inclusion that are fundamental to our mission and central to our role.

In the past few daysI have met with student leaders of BiGaLa (the Bisexual, Gay,Lesbian and Ally student organization) and with key administrators, including the Director of the Rainbow Center. I have also been in close contact with the University Police. These discussions have made it clear that we need to redouble our efforts not just to deal with specific incidents, but to address underlying causes of concern. Accordingly, I have asked Interim Chancellor Fred Maryanski to work with students, faculty, administrators and staff to develop a coordinated plan of action. A community-wide public hearing will be an early step in that effort, and I look forward to hearing from a wide cross-section of members of the UConn family as we respond to an issue that truly involves us all.

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